Books! Books! Bullshit!

Johannes Gutenberg downloads the Bible to his prototype Kindle.

Johannes Gutenberg downloads the Bible to his prototype Kindle.

Literature totally counts as science, right? Anyway.

E-book sales outstripping real books for first time, claims Amazon

Really? Really? Bear in mind that there are 3 million E-reader users in all of the USA, and probably fewer than 5 million in the entire world. If this was true, E-reader owners must be reading – or at least buying – hundreds of books a day just to keep up with their more traditional counterparts.

E-book sales have in fact simply outstripped hardback book sales on Hardback books do not make up anywhere near the bulk of book sales by volume, which is what the numbers in the article are based on. Hardback is a prestige format used mostly for books that are likely to win awards, sell extremely well on release, or can be sold to a captive market (*cough*massively overpriced physics textbooks*cough*). It’s also big – i.e., annoying to order online. Paperbacks can be mass produced and stored far more cheaply, and are much more convenient for carrying, which is why they sell by the hundred-thousand, especially at airports and railway stations.

For reference, over the last year, I’ve bought something in the region of 30 books. Only 3 were hardbacks – Kraken by China Miéville, Leviathan by Scott Westerfield and In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield – and only because I was desperate to read them on release, rather than waiting a year for the paperback.

And then there’s the fact that Amazon are only working off their own sales figures – the sales of books from brick-and-mortar stores is ignored. According to the most recent data, the Association of American Publishers (which took me a whole 30 seconds Googling to find) said the sales of E-books made up 8.48% of the total sales of trade books in May – in other words, $29.3 million of E-books were sold, for $138.5 million of adult hardback and $165.3 million of adult paperback, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars more on children’s books and non-fiction. And that’s just in the United States, of course. In the UK, where Amazon has still not officially released the Kindle, the figure will be lower. And of course, this is all in the first world – if we were to take booksales world wide, including high population newly industrialised nations like India and China, E-book sales must vanish into insignificance.

8.48% of American mass-market sales is still an interesting figure, but hardly the total domination Amazon implies. This article is, like most technology articles these days, a piece of churnalism where an advertorialising press release gets chopped up a little then posted without analysis.* Amazon says E-books outsell dead tree books, the press snatches up the comment and prints it without even questioning the claim – though in fairness, most of the other papers seem to have noticed that hardbacks are not “all books”. Just like they always do.

* In this case, the Daily Mail has failed to even convert currencies properly, simply replacing the dollar sign for the pound sign, which leads to the daft idea of a price cut from $259 to £189 – which would actually be a rise from £169 to £189.


  1. #1 by ukenagashi on Tuesday, 20th July 2010 - 15:58 GMT+0100

    I could say that you’re just being mean to the Daily Mail now, but what the hell, they’re all being paid for this and proofreading is not something optional. Just like morals, standards and not-being-the-Daily-Mail.

    Also every book you have bought in hardback was worth it (not read Kraken but I assume that Mr Miéville hasn’t magically become shit in the last five minutes).

    Off topic, me and my sister used to call woodlice “hardbacks”. Every time I see the word I remember the feeling of picking them up in tissues and binning them.

  2. #2 by wickedday on Tuesday, 20th July 2010 - 16:39 GMT+0100

    Is literature a science? Can science be literature? Discuss.

    News that ebooks are outstripping hardbacks in a particular market is kind of interesting in its own right … but probably to an anthropologist or social psychologist, not an economist. Why do people choose e-books? Why are Amazon’s hardback figures so much worse than those of brick-and-mortar stores (implied by the third-to-last paragraph)?

    Is it the case that people who wanted hardbacks for their immediacy – and therefore went out and bought them right then instead of waiting on the paperback – are attracted by the one-click-and-you’ve-got-it speed of ebooks instead? Or is it just that only Amazon is showing an uptick in ebook sales because they’re one of the very few places to sell them, whereas you can buy hardbacks anywhere?

    Also, to add to the statistics: I own 263 books at the last count, of which only twenty-eight are in hardback. (Interestingly, only six of the hardbacks were bought by me – the others were variously inherited, given, and liberated from library amnesties. And older books, books intended as gifts, and library books are all more likely to be hardback, at a guess.)

  3. #3 by knightofthedropdowntable on Tuesday, 20th July 2010 - 22:36 GMT+0100

    (*cough*massively overpriced physics textbooks*cough*)

    I think you’ll find that is ‘massively MASSIVE and overpriced physics textbooks’.

    I rarely buy hardbacks either, usually only textbooks and non-fiction that doesn’t come out in paperback. The only exception to this is the few tabletop gaming rulebooks I have (and intend to add to soon), as they get used so often that they need hardback covers to stay in one piece – my friend actually had to buy a replacement hardback copy of one book because we use it so often. I would be perfectly happy for publishers to just scrap hardback fiction, and this silly big-paperback format they like these days.

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